Free instant stress-buster: happy memories

Maria Isabel Garcia
Free instant stress-buster: happy memories
Science goes a step further to confirm what having good memories could do for you

I was recently on a trip to Iloilo with two of my oldest best friends and I was the designated curator of songs to be played in the car while we were visiting farms, oyster havens and La Paz batchoy. When it came to Simon and Garfunkel’s Bookends, we all sang with it in step, with lyrics intact. For those unfamiliar with the song, it goes:

Time it was and what a time It was

A time of innocence. A time of confidences

Long ago it must be, I had a photograph

Preserve your memories. They’re all that’s left you.

Well, it was easy to sing it perfectly together because it is one of the shortest songs ever recorded but most importantly, it just lyrically rolls out what my friends and I, all past 50, all know for sure, matters, now and at the end: good memories.

It is obvious that it is pleasurable to have good memories but recently, science went a step further to confirm what having good memories could do for you. It turns out, it could save you instantly during stressful situations.  

In a recent study, scientists found that when people were asked to recall a happy memory after a stressful event, their stress levels went down. They know this because the cortisol levels of the ones who recalled a happy memory (for 14 seconds) after a stressful event (putting hands on icy water) did not stay high for long compared with those who were only made to recall a neutral event.

Cortisol is a hormone released when you are stressed. “Stress” is not just being tired. Fatigue is the result of too much stress. Stress is when you are on high alert because you are sick, have to get things done, or even when you get upset or angry.  It is nature’s way of activating all the heightened emotions that you need to confront the cause of the stress. However, if cortisol stays too long in your system or you have it too often in your system at high levels, it causes inflammation which in turn, could cause many conditions including heart disease.

To add to that, not only were the cortisol levels of those who recalled happy memories only the height of a single hill compared to the mountain range of those who only recalled neutral events. Those who were made to recall happy thoughts even had enhanced positive moods.

What was most interesting to me was that for the people who recalled happy memories, there was significant activity to parts of the “higher brain”, the cortex that are associated with regulating emotions as well as “reward”. This means that that the connections of emotions to the “thinking” part of the brain is crucial in the way we react to stress.

The most important insight from this study is that happy memories could instantly relieve you of the stress you are experiencing. It is of course always great if you have people around you who help you diffuse stressful situations but if you are by yourself, knowing that having happy memories in your mental pocket to retrieve will help you is certainly empowering. This would be difficult if you like to keep a record of complaints and bitterness and how life has treated you badly. If that is mostly what you have in your mental pocket, you will be trapped in your own stress and worse, stress others.

But wait, there’s more. If you have happy memories that are marked with gratitude, you could multiply the happiness you get from them by sharing them. That 2012 study has shown that when people shared such memories with partners, they reported more happiness and life satisfaction. In fact, this increased even more when the one with whom you share the experience receives it with enthusiasm. And this, folks is why real friends are life-giving. They multiply what your inner life has discovered just by sharing it with them.

Now I understand better why older folks like to tell stories over and over again in reunions. It is not that they forgot and need to remind themselves and each other. Rather, it is because they feel increasingly good receiving each other’s retelling of their stories. It is the feelings that are remade every time happy memories are recalled and shared. Every happy reunion is like a memory recycling center – where new things are made out of old bits.

Stock up on happy memories, folks. It fills you, saves you and as with each and everyone of us, as the song goes, it is really all that’s left you. –

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